The dead here lie eye-level with the living
Filed away in labeled pigeonholes.
I read the carving, look for Uncle Jim.
I can't find a stone that says his name
Among the voodoo scratches on the dead's front doors.
The night he died, eight hundred miles away,
My mother, holding the black phone, wrote down
What Western Union said: Jim Dying Can't Last Night.
(And five words more for the same price;
I remember only these.) We wept, she packed
And rode the old I.C., the Casey Jones main line,
To put him in the grave I couldn't find.
Jim and Sammy, friends, both hot telegraphers,
Worked the Morse wires, rattling their black Underwoods
As fast as those New York hacks could clack it out,
Tapping back in their fluent fists: Send
With your other foot a while! They were the best
At their dying trade, and Jim had pretty sisters.
One of them, my mother, buried Jim
Young and Sammy old, both their hearts worn down.
Mine too, a little, and here a little more
In this tourist-haunted graveyard where I search
Eroding stones for Mother's maiden name.
A lively storm blows through, emphatic whacks
Of summer lightning crack and sizzle. We
Make tracks for shelter. Briefly rain spits down.
I draw my dead about me like a shawl.
2River View, 1_2 (Winter 1997)